How to talk to a child about war and unrest in the world

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As the invasion of Ukraine continues, we’re exposed to even more upsetting images. Children may be feeling worried and asking tricky questions about the war. To help you respond and offer them reassurance, here’s some specialist advice from a child psychologist.*

A child who has previously been exposed to war is likely to feel differently to a child without that experience. All we can do as adults is do our best to give the child the level of reassurance they need. But don’t assume that your child feels scared just because you do.

How do I talk to my child about what’s happening in Ukraine?

‘Children come from different backgrounds and see the world from different perspectives. This will determine how worried the child will be about the current situation,’ explains Martin Forster, child psychologist at Livi.

‘It’s usually best to let your child ask questions, rather than you reporting the facts to them. Asking your child what they already know is a good place to start,’ he says.

Have they discussed the conflict in school? Have they heard things from their friends or seen something on social media? What are your child’s thoughts about all this? If you – the child’s parent/guardian – are feeling extremely anxious about the situation, it may be a good idea to let another adult talk to the child, as anxiety can spread easily.

What else can help with my child who’s worrying?

It can help to stay up-to-date with information from the government. But remember it’s fine to have a break from the news and not know all the answers. If your child asks a difficult question that you can’t answer, be honest and promise to find out.

‘Obviously, it’s a bad idea to show or tell young children very frightening things,’ Martin says. ‘But it’s also important to answer your child’s questions honestly, rather than try to convince them that everything’s fine. This may make them feel that you’re not taking their fears seriously. Your child may even suspect that you’re trying to hide the truth, which might make them feel even more scared.

You could suggest watching CBBC Newsround with them, as this is news content especially made for children. And could help dispel any fake news they have seen on social media. You should assure your child that not everything they read on social media is true. And ask them to come to you instead if they have any questions.

What’s the best way to reassure my child?

It’s always worth reiterating the importance of honesty. Give straight and simple answers to your child’s questions, and validate their concerns – for example, it’s completely okay to feel worried, and you’re also very disappointed and scared by the conflict.

But it’s not always helpful to talk in depth about the situation. Some children may be overwhelmed by anxiety and ask question after question, hoping to feel calmer. In these cases, it may be better to not talk about the war at all, as each answer only relieves the child’s anxiety temporarily.

If you have a child who’s very scared by what’s happening, it may be a good idea to take a break from the news altogether. Suggest some fun activities, restrict your family’s use of social media, and don’t keep the radio or TV on in the background.

‘Many children are wondering if the war might spread to their country. Young children may find it very difficult to assess risks, so it’s usually better to reply with something like: no, Russia isn’t interested in our country,’ suggests Martin.

‘Or for older children you could say – that while the risk may be small, our military leaders always need to be ready to defend our country because that’s their job.’

This article has been medically reviewed by Martin Forster, child psychologist at Livi.

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